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Systemic Racism 201: The advantages Whites have felt entitled to for generations

Reggie Jackson details the institution of racial discrimination that White Americans continue to ignore or support. This feature is part of a special series of articles that takes a closer look at the issue of Racism in the United States, understanding what Racism is and its social impact, along with exploring the conditions of Racism in Milwaukee’s culture. http://mkeind.com/systemicracism

“What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life—that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad…This is your last chance. After this there is no turning back. You take the blue pill, the story ends; you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” – Morpheus, “The Matrix”

Most conversations about systemic racism center the stories of the harms to people of color while ignoring that White people benefit tremendously from it. This is a tough pill to swallow. Few people are willing to go down the proverbial rabbit hole Morpheus spoke allegorically about in that scene from the Matrix.

It is time we explore systemic racism from that vantage point. Imagine looking at a 1,000-piece puzzle on your table and realizing the box cover is blank. Where do you begin? This is how I explain to people the hidden side of systemic racism. You don’t know what you don’t know.

How many of you have heard the story of the slavery in America in school? There were major parts left out of what we were all taught. Enslaved African people had value far above and beyond the free labor they provided Whites for 246 years. These are a few of the things White slaveholders had at their disposal: if someone killed or injured an enslaved person you owned they would have to pay you restitution; you could sell the males and females into prostitution; you could open up a breeding plantation; you could use them to pay taxes you owed; you could use these Africans as collateral to receive a loan; you could loan out the skilled ones and be paid for their labor; you could auction them off to pay debts; you could leave them as an inheritance to your children and grandchildren. I have seen the last will and testament of the woman whose family enslaved my family in Mississippi. It was devastating to read the words of this woman who was giving my family members away just as she did household items and animals to her children and grandchildren.

For the majority of Whites who were never slaveholders, slavery provided tremendous benefits to them as well. This is a short list of ways you could make money off of slavery without being a slaveholder: you could start a company in Rhode Island to build America’s slaving ships; you could become the owner of a lumber company which provides the wood to build said ships; you could be employed building the ships; you could work building the harbors for the ships; you could be employed by or owner of a company that made the sails for the ships; you could provide the food and other vital needs of the ships as they left to travel to Africa; you could own the bank that invested in the slaving ships journey; you could provide the commodities like beads and necklaces or old guns that Africans were purchased with; you could invest your money in the company that chartered the ships; you could build and sell the guns used by crew members; you could provide the gun powder for those guns; your company could provide the alcoholic beverages used to get the Africans drunk in the slaving camps of West Africa; you could open an insurance company like Lloyd’s of London to ensure the cargo on the ships (which was simply the bodies of Africans during the Middle Passage); you could open an auction house to sell the Africans; you could be the auctioneer; you could become a broker buying dozens of Africans at a time in the slaving ports and sell them as you journeyed further into the interior of the slaving states in the north and south; you could start a tobacco company; you could produce textiles from the cotton picked by the Africans; you could build and sell the shackles used on the Africans; you could start a company providing sugar and molasses from the sugar cane produced with free labor; you could become a fugitive “slave” catcher.

I could go on and on with each of these lists of opportunities provided to White people as a result of the system of selling human beings we call slavery. The next time you are inclined to say “my family never owned any slaves” think twice before you speak those words. If your family came from Europe after slavery ended, their well being back home was based on the capital produced by the enslavement of hundreds of millions of Africans over nearly four hundred years. The Industrial Revolution was driven by the products of brutally enforced free labor.

The late Eric Williams, former prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago from 1961 until his death in 1981 was a professor of political and social science at Howard University. His groundbreaking study Capitalism and Slavery written in 1944 still stands the test of time. In the book he describes how:

“Slavery helped finance the Industrial Revolution in England. Plantation owners, shipbuilders, and merchants connected with the slave trade accumulated vast fortunes that established banks and heavy industry in Europe and expanded the reach of capitalism worldwide.”

What can we say about the landmass we call America? The thousands of different groups of Indigenous people on the continent when Whites arrived all lost their ancestral lands to Whites. In 1845 John L. Sullivan wrote about the thirst for expansion which led to the further demise and disappearance of countless Native communities and millions of lost lives in coining the phrase Manifest Destiny.

“…. the right of our manifest destiny to over spread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federaltive development of self government entrusted to us. It is right such as that of the tree to the space of air and the earth suitable for the full expansion of its principle and destiny of growth.”

The 1887 Dawes Act, officially called the General Allotment Act allowed the President to break Indian lands into small parcels known as allotments. The allotment program developed by the federal government cheated Native Americans into giving up ownership of land they possessed. In 1887 according to The Northern Plains Reservation Aid (NPRA) Program “total land held by American Indian tribes on reservations equaled 138,000,000 acres. By the end of the allotment period landholdings had been reduced to 48,000,000 acres.” Who received the land as it was taken from the Native Americans? Almost exclusively White settlers and business owners.

The program was designed as a way to legally cheat these individuals out of their land. “The act stated that the head of each family would receive 160 acres of tribal land and each single person would receive 80 acres. Title to the land would be held in trust by the government for 25 years. After 25 years each individual would receive United States citizenship and fee simple title to their land.” Most Native people did not hold the land for any thing close to 25 years. They were forced to sell their allotments as mineral resources were found on their land. Much of the land not parceled out was the possession of the federal government and used for “homesteaders.”

In May 1862 President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Homestead Act of 1862. The first person to receive land under this act was Daniel Freeman. Each homesteader was given 160 acres “of public land provided they live on it, improve it, and pay a small registration fee. Do you think it is coincidental that Homestead allotments were the exact same size as the allotments under the Dawes Act? This facilitated an easy accounting of the transfer of land from Native Americans to Whites.

The Government “granted more than 270 million acres of land while the law was in effect,” according to records at the National Archives. Homesteaders did not have to be citizens to receive the land. Foreign born whites flooded the country to get land which was practically free and get a new start on life. The land given away under the Homestead Act encompasses 10% of the present day United States.

The only qualification was that one had to be 21 years old and the head of household. If you had saved up $24 you could get the land. The filing fee was $18 and the fee for the patent on the land was $6. Some went to formerly enslaved Blacks who in many case would eventually be cheated out of their allotments, but by far, a majority went to Whites to begin building generational wealth in 30 different states. Forty five percent of the entire state of Nebraska was acquired by homesteaders.

The Homestead Act was not repealed by the federal government until 1976 in the continental United States and 1986 in Alaska. Detailed data for the distribution of the land is available from the late 1860s until 1960. The number of homestead patents given were as follows: 64,515 from 1871-1880; 192,800 from 1881-1890; 225,743 from 1891-1900; 372,002 from 1901-1910; 439,710 from 1911-1920; 161,896 from 1921-1930; 40,211 from 1931-1940; 4,592 from 1941-1950; 3,856 from 1951-1960.

The amount of land given was: 1.3 million acres from 1868-1870; 17.9 million acres from 1871-1880; 28.9 million acres from 1881-1890; 31.9 million acres from 1891-1900; 52.7 million acres from 1901-1910; 82.1 million acres from 1911-1920; 40.6 million acres from 1921-1930; 6.3 million acres from 1931-1940; 973,449 acres from 1941-1950; and 481,202 from 1951-1960.

“The newcomers quickly learned their way about and soon felt at home. The Homestead Act of 1862 provided them, as well as many other pioneers, with an opportunity to acquire land and establish family farms. To the land-hungry immigrants, the tough prairie sod seemed a golden opportunity and they conquered it by hard work.” – President Harry S. Truman, June 4, 1948

President Truman talked about a golden opportunity for immigrants. He forgot to mention that historically the land had been transferred from the indigenous Native Americans and basically given away to mostly White people. The myth of the Protestant work ethic was born at this time.

Massive transference of wealth in the form of land ownership was the ultimate impact of the Homestead Act. You didn’t have to do anything special to acquire this wealth, just not be a non-white person for the most part. The transfer using the Homestead Act of nearly 300 million acres of land was astonishing by comparison to the Louisiana Purchase.

The United States received 827,000 square miles of territory in 1803 for $15 million from France in the famous Louisiana Purchase. France had been placed under great strain as a result of the revolt by enslaved Blacks in their most valuable sugar colony of Saint Domingue (now Haiti) and Napoleon was desperate to rid France of land they could not protect in North America. Jefferson cut a sweetheart deal which doubled the size of the United States.

“By any measure, it was one of the most colossal land transactions in history, involving an area larger than today’s France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Holland, Switzerland and the British Isles combined. All or parts of 15 Western states would eventually be carved from its nearly 830,000 square miles, which stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, and from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. And the price, $15 million, or about four cents an acre, was a breathtaking bargain.” -Joseph A. Harriss, Smithsonian Magazine

Compare this purchase to the 270 million acres of land sold to settlers using the Homestead Act. That acreage is 422,000 square miles, a little more than half of the land acquired from France. About 93 million descendants of homesteaders are still alive today.

In Wisconsin 3.1 million acres were acquired by 29,246 homesteaders who purchased literally 9 percent of the land in the state according to Homestead National Monument of America Historian Todd Arrington. In North Dakota (39%), Montana (35%), Oklahoma (34%), Colorado (33%) South Dakota (32%), Wyoming (29%), Kansas (25%) and New Mexico (25%) more than one fourth of each state’s land was obtained by homesteaders. Only Nebraska at 48% had a larger percentage of its land acquired through the act.

In terms of the number of homestead claims overall, Montana led the way with 151,000, followed by: North Dakota (118,472); Colorado (107,618); Nebraska (104,260); Oklahoma (99,557); and South Dakota (97,197) all exceeding 90,000 claims.

In Montana over 32 million acres were acquired, while over 22 million in both Colorado and Nebraska and 19 million plus in New Mexico and over 18.2 million in Wyoming were gained by homesteaders.

Looking at the current white population percentage of some the states that had the greatest percentage of land acquired by homesteaders paints a picture of the program’s impact on white families. The white population in North Dakota (83.6%), Montana (85.8%), South Dakota (81.5%), Wyoming (83.7%), Kansas (75.4%), and Nebraska (78.4%) give you some idea of the gains made and still possessed by Whites.

The Homestead Act would not be the last effort to build generational wealth for White people. The programs which helped build generational wealth for White people while mostly excluding people of color for decades helps explains why White people are so far ahead of non-whites even to this day. Beginning in the 1930s during the early years of the Great Depression, the federal government was alarmed by foreclosure rates hovering around 50 percent.

Under the auspices of the New Deal during the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Congress passed the National Housing Act of 1934, which led to the creation of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). The FHA would create the first amortized mortgages making it significantly easier to purchase a home, lowering downpayments and extending the terms of paying off homes and creating equity that could be borrowed against at low interest rates to make home improvements, sending children to college and acquiring stocks and bonds.

“…the federal government began to insure mortgages issued by qualified lenders, providing mortgage lenders protection from default. If a borrower failed to make their payments, the FHA was required to cover the unpaid balance. The government-insured mortgages provided stability to the housing market and increased the availability of funding for home building and purchasing.” – The Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston

The program was written using colorblind language but was instituted and carried out in a very color conscious way. Author Richard Rothstein in his book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How the Federal Government Segregated America referred to the FHA as an agency which created a “state-sponsored system of segregation.” They went out of their way to give Whites homeownership opportunities. From 1930-1950 over ninety-eight percent of all loans the FHA issued went to White borrowers.

In the FHA’s underwriting manuals the agency spoke honestly about how they would use race to dictate who became homeowners. They subsidized developments across the country, including massive subdivisions built exclusively for White families.

Not only did the underwriting manuals dictate segregated housing but they were very clear about how to create and maintain all-white communities. As early as 1936 the underwriting manuals described the impact of so-called “inharmonious racial groups.”

“The infiltration of inharmonious racial groups…tend to lower the levels of land values and and to lessen the desirability of residential areas…Schools…should not be attended in large numbers by inharmonious racial groups…If a neighborhood is to retain stability it is necessary that the properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes…natural or artificially established barriers will prove effective in protecting a neighborhood from adverse influences… (such as) inharmonious racial groups…A high-speed traffic artery…may prevent the expansion of inharmonious uses… high rating should be given only where adequate zoning regulations or effective deed restrictions exist inasmuch as these provide the surest protection against undesirable encroachment and inharmonious use.”

The FHA was instrumental in pushing the use of racial restrictive covenants across the country. The Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston describe these covenants:

“A covenant is a legally enforceable “contract” imposed in a deed upon the buyer of property. Owners who violate the terms of the covenant risk forfeiting the property. Most covenants “run with the land” and are legally enforceable on future buyers of the property. Racially restrictive covenants refer to contractual agreements that prohibit the purchase, lease, or occupation of a piece of property by a particular group of people, usually African Americans. Racially restrictive covenants were not only mutual agreements between property owners in a neighborhood not to sell to certain people, but were also agreements enforced through the cooperation of real estate boards and neighborhood associations. Racially restrictive covenants became common after 1926 after the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Corrigan v. Buckley, which validated their use.”

Years after the Supreme Court ruled these racial covenants unenforceable in the 1948 Shelley v. Kramer case, they were still being written here in the Milwaukee metro area. This is the language of one written in Greendale in November 1953 in the Crestview #3 subdivision. It was set to expire January 1,1978:

“No Persons other than the white race shall own or occupy any building on said tract, but this covenant shall not prevent occupancy of persons of a race other than the white race who are domestic servants of the owner or occupant of said building.”

In South Milwaukee’s George T. Hansen subdivision this one written in 1937 was set to expire in 2024:

“At no time shall Lot of any building thereon be purchased, owned, leased, occupied or used by any person other than citizen of the United States of America, of the White Race. This provision shall not apply to domestic servants which may be employed by the owner or occupant of any such Lot or building thereon.”

The FHA’s lending policies along with racist practices by the National Association of Real Estate Boards (NAREB) widened the home ownership gap between Whites and other groups. The preamble to the 1924 Code of Ethics for NAREB begins with flowery language which is hypocritical considering what follows in the real estate Bible. “Under all is land. Upon its wise utilization and widely allocated ownership depend the survival and growth of free institutions and our civilization. The Realtor is the instrumentality through which the land resource of the nation reaches its highest use and through which land ownership attains its widest distribution. He is creator of homes, a builder of cities, an developer of industries and productive farms. Such functions impose obligations beyond those of ordinary commerce; they impose grave social responsibility and a patriotic duty…The Realtor…is zealous to maintain and improve the standards of his calling and shares…a common responsibility for its integrity and honor.”

How amazing to hear this talk about honor, duty, patriotism and social responsibility in a document laced with racism. Article 34 of the Code of Ethics clearly delineates that race will play an important part in setting up White people to gain advantages which will be denied to other racial groups. From 1924 to 1950, Article 34 read:

“A Realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood a character of property or occupancy, members of any race or nationality, or any individuals whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values in that neighborhood.”

What’s important to remember about this article 34, is that not abiding by these terms means a loss of your license to practice. They make it clear that discrimination against non-whites will be the norm for decades to come. The NAREB Code of conduct as late as 1955 still had the same language, simply moving it from Article 34 up to Article 5.

Both NAREB and the FHA along with the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) which drew Residential Security Maps (redlining maps) in 239 cities around the country including Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha and Madison, helped create a two-tier system of home ownership using race as the main determining factor of who would be given the privilege of becoming homeowners.

The redlining maps were used to make clear where it was “safe” to give loans for homes and businesses. The Mapping Prejudice project at the University of Minnesota tells us about the toxic soup of tools used to keep certain neighborhoods all-white.

“Restrictive deeds were just one of the mechanisms that prevented African Americans from securing stable and affordable housing; covenants worked in tandem with other practices like redlining and white violence to undermine the housing stability of people of color…Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) (the) New Deal era Federal agency colored the neighborhood(s) red on their residential security maps, which made it almost impossible to obtain loans for homes or businesses…“Redlining” occurred in communities all over the country. This practice depressed business development and home prices in areas inhabited by people who were not considered to be white. This fueled the racial wealth gap that we have today.”

These policies and practices helped drive Whites into the middle class and upper middle class, helping them to build equity and generational wealth. White families did not simply “do all the right things.” They were offered the right things on a silver platter. At the same time they convinced themselves that their Protestant work ethic was the reason for their success. Next came the GI Bill, Urban Renewal, the National Highway Program and the building of suburbs to cement the pathway to success for many White families.

The Federal Highway Administration describes the 1950s era highway building boom as, “the Greatest Public Works Project in History. From the day President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, the Interstate System has been a part of our culture as construction projects, as transportation in our daily lives, and as an integral part of the American way of life. Every citizen has been touched by it, if not directly as motorists, then indirectly because every item we buy has been on the Interstate System at some point. President Eisenhower considered it one of the most important achievements of his two terms in office, and historians agree.”

They were right. It did touch the lives of every American but not in the same way. Black and Hispanic neighborhoods were leveled across the country to build these freeways to provide transportation to the suburbs. In Milwaukee 14,219 homes were demolished to build the numerous freeways in the city displacing innumerable individuals and families, over 50 percent of which were Black. (Blacks were only 3.4% of Milwaukee’s population in 1950 and just 8.8% in 1960.)

This followed years of federally subsidized urban renewal projects. Across the country 90 percent of homes razed by urban renewal projects were never rebuilt and 1,600 of the 2,500 neighborhoods destroyed in 993 cities were in Black neighborhoods. The first such project in Milwaukee called the Hillside urban renewal project which began in 1957 on Walnut St., destroyed 99 businesses (47% of all black owned businesses in Milwaukee) and displaced 414 residents (98% of them were black). This is what happened to the thriving Black business district commonly referred to now as Bronzeville. It was destroyed before the freeway got there. According to aerial photos of the city, by 1963 all of the homes and businesses from 6th to 10th Streets on Walnut had been bulldozed. By the time the freeway got there everything on Walnut St. was already gone.

Plans for the national highway system went back to initial reports written to Congress in 1939. In the 1950s the plans were unveiled. “The U.S. Bureau of Public Roads had published General Location of National System of Interstate Highways in September 1955 with 100 pages of maps showing the urban Interstates. This publication—known as the Yellow Book because of the color of its cover — was distributed to the Members of Congress as well as State highway agencies and city governments.”

From 1948 until 1958, eighty-five percent of all new homes built in the country were built in the suburbs, and with few exceptions, were off limits to all but White families. With the use of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act commonly known as the GI Bill, White families flooded into these brand new communities. As a result of redlining and real estate as well as banking practices these communities were off limits to Black GI’s and their families.

The growth of the U.S. economy in the years after the war allowed these White families to move into the middle and upper middle class. The education portion of the GI Bill extended the privileges to Whites even further. The language of the 1944 bill did not lay out discrimination but the way the funds were distributed by states allowed Whites to benefit while Blacks were left in the cold. By 1956, the education-and-training portion of the GI Bill had disbursed $14.5 billion to veterans. A huge majority of this went to White GI’s because 19 states maintained separate colleges and universities for Black and White students. There were very limited opportunities for Black GIs to attend college and a 1947 survey found that just 5 percent of Black GI’s enrolled in courses under the education benefit.

The current standard of living of Whites in America is deeply impacted by these policies and practices. The wealth gap, health disparities and so many other parts of the systemic racism that we see evidence of today is a result of policies and practices which continue to undermine efforts by people of color to move forward and “catch-up” to Whites.

In the middle of the large surge of home buying in the early 2000’s subprime lenders by the dozens descended on the Black community in Milwaukee, giving people eligible for prime loans subprime loans instead. These predatory lenders paid underwriters much higher commissions for underwriting subprime loans than prime loans, incentivizing the practice. Three large banks, Associated Bank, Wells Fargo, and Countrywide Financial (now a part of Bank of America) were all accused by the federal government of predatory lending to Black and Hispanic borrowers.

Associated Bank was accused of giving higher interest rates and fees to Black and Hispanic borrowers and settled a discrimination lawsuit with the federal government for $200 million in 2015. In 2011 and 2012 respectively Countrywide Financial and Wells Fargo settled discrimination claims for $335 million and $175 million. Both were accused of giving Black and Hispanic borrowers subprime loans instead of the prime loans they were clearly eligible for – and paid their underwriters a much higher commission for approving subprime instead of prime loans. The settlement with Countrywide Financial was the largest ever in a housing discrimination lawsuit.

These unfair housing policies and practices have led to the wealth gaps and deteriorated conditions seen in neighborhoods across the country. A 2014 report entitled Zip Code Inequality: Discrimination by Banks in the Maintenance of Homes in Neighborhoods of Color, by the National Fair Housing Alliance reported that:

“In the past few years, banks and the federal government have attempted through counseling, short sales, deeds-in-lieu and principal reduction to cut down on the number of foreclosures that complete the process and become bank-owned (also known as Real Estate Owned or REO properties). Despite these efforts, vacant REO properties still exist in record numbers in neighborhoods across the country, particularly in neighborhoods that had been targeted with predatory loans and in neighborhoods of color…REOs often remain vacant for many months or years before being sold and can create blight and other negative outcomes for neighborhoods when not managed and maintained responsibly.”

These are issues related to the other side of the systemic racism narrative that is rarely talked about. In her brilliant 2019 book, The Color of Money: Black Owned Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap, Mehrsa Baradaran challenges the often heard myth that black communities will eventually accumulate wealth in a segregated economy. She argues that housing segregation, racism, and Jim Crow credit policies created an “inescapable, but hard to detect, economic trap for black communities and their banks.” She challenges the:

“long-standing notion that black banking and community self-help is the solution to the racial wealth gap. These initiatives have functioned as a potent political decoy to avoid more fundamental reforms and racial redress. Examining the fruits of past policies and the operation of banking in a segregated economy, she makes clear that only bolder, more realistic views of banking’s relation to black communities will end the cycle of poverty and promote black wealth.”

A 2016 study by the Institute for Policy Studies, The Ever-Growing Gap: Failing to Address the Status Quo Will Drive the Racial Wealth Divide for Centuries to Come tells us that based on trends pre-dating the current pandemic, that it will take generations to close the gaps for Blacks and Latinos.

“If average black family wealth continues to grow at the same pace it has over the past three decades, it would take black families 228 years to amass the same amount of wealth white families have today. That’s just 17 years shorter than the 245-year span of slavery in this country. For the average Latino family, it would take 84 years to amass the same amount of wealth White families have today — that’s the year 2097.”

These realities and histories are the hidden story of systemic racism that far too many want to deny the truth of. History does not lie but history tellers lie. A long tradition of not teaching these ugly parts of American history is the reason so many deny the existence of systemic racism. They make arguments that are not based on the lived experiences of the people who’ve been victims of this insidious plague. The narrative they follow is based on their narrow recollection of and even narrower understanding of the history of non-whites in this country.

To truly understand systemic racism is to look squarely in the proverbial mirror and use history to answer the question of why Whites are so far ahead of non-whites in nearly every measure of well-being in the country. It might not fit into the story most Americans have been taught and believe about America but it is a blunt, honest truth about how we got here.

“Until the lion tells his side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” – African Proverb

About The Author

Reggie Jackson

As an award-winning Senior Columnist for the Milwaukee Independent, Reggie Jackson covers a range of African American issues. He is also a Consultant with Nurturing Diversity Partners, and volunteers as Head Griot for America’s Black Holocaust Museum (ABHM) in Bronzeville.